Thursday, December 31, 2015

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training deaths in 2015

Two Armed Forces (SAF) personnel died in the line of duty in 2015 - same as the number reported for 2014 - according to statements from Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).

MINDEF/SAF continue to drive home the Safety First message among sailors, soldiers and airmen. As new cohorts of mainly teenaged full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) are inducted into the SAF every year, this effort must be a sustained push as even a momentary lapse may result in a tragedy.

In a tiny city-state like Singapore where almost every household has had a family member serve the SAF, and in a society where the high urban density and highly-networked society amplifies news, every loss is keenly felt.

That said, the all-out effort to improve training safety is noteworthy. 

In 2009, when 10 SAF deaths were logged, the MINDEF/SAF have jointly invested immense efforts at improving training safety. This saw a dramatic slide in fatalities in 2010, which saw the SAF end the year with zero fatalities.

In 2011,  the SAF reported three fatalities.

In 2012, the number doubled to six deaths.

In 2013, the SAF reported one death, though at least five instances of near misses took place in 2013. These include servicemen who were hospitalised due to cardiac arrest, some 300 suspected Norovirus cases at the Basic Military Training Centre on Pulau Tekong and an incident involving a Republic of Singapore Air Force pilot who was involved in a hard landing in a United States Navy T-45C Goshawk trainer in Florida.

Every fatality is one too many.

For 2016, let's all resolve to make our workplace a safe one.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Singapore's TeLEOS-1 satellite can serve Total Defence as eye in the sky

In a country where civilian assets such as trucks, planes and ships can be requisitioned for national defence, it should come as no surprise that there’s a part for space-based assets in Total Defence.

Singapore’s TeLEOS-1 satellite, now in orbit some 500km above the Equator, takes pictures with a 1-metre resolution when it passes the neighbourhood once every 100 minutes or so.

If you need a gadget to exemplify “see first, see more”, this is it.

When it comes to the ability to see above and beyond one’s border, the satellite is hard to beat.

The eye in the sky provides superior overwatch when applied to reconnaissance missions in support of maritime security and safety, Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief and environmental activity verification. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out the many defence-linked recce applications for TeLEOS-1 too, should its optical sensors be focused on the right stuff.

But this commanding view comes with caveats: Acts of nature (cloud cover or the all-too-frequent thunderstorms) and acts of man (haze, camouflage, concealment, decoys) are potential spoilers that could foil one’s ability to achieve comprehensive awareness.

TeLEOS-1 can be viewed as another asset in Singapore’s multi-layered surveillance network that is quite literally multi-spectrum. These assets range from miniature UAVs launched by hand, F-16C/Ds with recce pods, ground-based radars big and small to airborne early warning assets such as the G550.

In time to come, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will presumably enlist TeLEOS-1’s lofty view of the region to provide yet another tier to its surveillance network.

The ability to update satellite images of the region every 90 minutes or so - rather than days - will be a game-changer for defence planners. This refresh rate will enable defence planners to better discern - sense-make in MINDEF/SAF-speak - the security situation around our city-state. 

But to fully maximise the satellite’s recce capabilities, TeLEOS-1 must be integrated with other surveillance assets and a rigorous process for analysing, interpreting and disseminating situation reports based on these satellite images.

Sense-making is sometimes more art than science. This explains why our defence eco-system needs to nurture a base of experienced operators who can fully exploit the potential of our new eye in the sky.

It may sound cliched but People are our greatest asset as our head start lofting a bespoke eye in the sky will eventually be closed by neighbouring countries once they too acquire such a capability. Treasure and nurture them well.

You may also like:
Time to evaluate need for RSAF Space Command. Click here

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Forging Sabre 2015 XFS 15 is proof of concept for Singapore's deterrence strategy

Six moving targets - the same number found in a typical rocket artillery battery - were destroyed at the same time by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) during its Forging Sabre war games.

To observers able to join the dots, the SAF capability demo in the Arizona desert during Exercise Forging Sabre 2015 (XFS 15) revealed far more about Singapore's ability to take apart an opponent than its press statements were prepared to say:
  • The distance covered in the area demarcated for the combined live-fire exercise (CALFEX) was about 20 times the size of Singapore or more than 100km at its longest stretch.
  • The duration of the most complex CALFEX battle cycle tested the SAF's ability to sustain a high tempo of operations over several days.
  • The battlespace in the XFS 15 exercise arena included targets such as a battery's worth of simulated transporter-erector-launchers (TELs), opposing forces (OPFOR) of high-performance warplanes and enemy SAMs. 
  • When one looks at the XFS 15 war game scenario, the ingress and egress routes on the simulated battlespace, number and arrangement of kill boxes, coordination of "last mile" guidance using Heron 1 unmanned aerial vehicles and Singapore Army Commando long-range recce patrol (LRRP) teams for target designation, and applies the exercise template to the geography around Singapore island, the results are indeed revealing.
Above all, XFS 15 - the fifth evolution in the long-running series that started out at Twentynine Palms, California, back in 2005 - demonstrated that the SAF's drawer plans are far more than paper plans. From the first XFS till today, each war game marks a progressive and noticeable step up in size, scope, capability, complexity and rigour of the all-out conventional war scenario played out by Singapore's fighting forces.

XFS allows MINDEF/SAF to show-and-tell
To be sure, war games previously hosted elsewhere such as High Noon and Ulysses have demonstrated the SAF's ability to marshal and deploy land and air units in large numbers across sizeable distances in two-sided encounters.

Live-fire exercises under the Firelight series allowed air defence units to practice the sensor-to-shooter kill chain, giving the air defence teams confidence in operating their weapon systems under simulated battle conditions. But the exercise venue made it awkward for MINDEF/SAF to say much, if anything, about what was done there and why. Furthermore, the scale of these war games and level of integration during the CALFEX  phase pale in comparison with what the United States has allowed Singapore to execute in CONUS during XFS.

The XFS series draws upon lessons learned from military exercises that take place in selected ASEAN nations, Australia, France, India, New Zealand and Sweden as well as training arrangements that have led to interactions with countries in the Asia-Pacific Rim and beyond. Each defence partner's contribution has proven invaluable and (hopefully) beneficial to both sides.

And so, the spotlight is turned on the XFS war games every two years or so. This is done to show observers how far the SAF has progressed in integrating land and air units and in sustaining the battle cycle during complex manoeuvres.

Singapore's ability to drop bombs from warplanes is not new. Back in the 1970s, Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Hawker Hunter fighter ground-attack aircraft could create a big bang with their British-made 1,000-pound general purpose bombs. In the 1980s, the RSAF added Paveway laser guided bombs to its arsenal and Maverick missiles that were guided either by a television camera in the missile's nose or an infrared seeker that homed in on a target's heat signature.

What's different at XFS is the ability to bring it all together.

At XFS 15, the validation of battle concepts for finding and finishing off a battery of six rocket launchers will set the stage when the kill chain needs to be scaled up. Simply put, if you know how many assets it takes to knock out six moving targets, you would be in a better position to work out how many assets are needed to engage multiples of six.

The light and sound show from a live-fire exercise is always a Kodak moment. The smoke, flame, sound, fury and shock effect that come from war machines and ordnance discharged is always a sight to behold. But there is a key difference between simply discharging warshot and maximising the combat potential and destructive power of the war machines in one's arsenal.

The unsexy parts would draw a yawn from most people: Defence scientists creating software that plots flight paths of outgoing artillery shells and missiles so battle planners can deconflict the space used by air units with the firing lanes of artillery units. Decision-making software that prioritises and allocates battlefield targets. The painstaking process of scanning satellite imagery to pluck out targets. All these contribute to the success of XFS but are difficult to showcase to the general public.

Indeed, there are few armed forces in the region that dedicate as much attention to the art and science of integrated warfare as the SAF.

Proof of concept
No plan survives first contact with the Enemy (or plural). War games like XFS allow proof of concept for doctrine at various levels of execution, principally the level of operational art and tactical engagements where individual platforms duel with enemy assets, under time pressure and under enemy fire to complete the kill chain.

The SAF's capability demo and desire to make its muscle-flexing widely publicised - as seen by the coterie of local and foreign press courted by the XFS media plan - could be both reassuring and alarming.

Sentiments evoked depend not so much on which side of the border one stands on, but more on one's personal outlook towards the tiny city-state and its posture of deterrence through strength and readiness. 

In and by itself, tiny Singapore's citizen's armed forces is in no position to threaten the politico-military status quo, the all-important caveat being that state actors do not attempt to use military power against the island nation.

Should push come to shove, the XFS scenario may well go "live", with the SAF ranging over an area 20 times the size of Singapore to hunt and kill the military assets that could hurt us.

At XFS 15, the SAF showed what it could do when the gloves come off.

The knock-out punch delivered against the OPFOR and simulated battle targets, by day and night, by many striking as one, is compelling evidence that tiny Singapore's deterrence strategy is underpinned by a playbook that is workable, rehearsed and devastatingly effective.

Related posts to help you join the dots:
This post explains why we should guard against third parties who may exploit the drawer plan to their own advantage. Click here

This post explains the need for deft diplomacy for a small country like Singapore. Click here

This post explains why armed forces need to be given free play should deterrence fail. Click here

XFS 13
This post outlines Dynamic Targeting demonstrated during XFS 13. Click here

XFS 13 battle management command post. Click here

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to guard against false flag operations during POT

In the thriller, Sum of All Fears, a period of tension (POT) between military units from NATO and Russia is exploited by non-state actors who stage false flag operations in a bid to start World War III.

Life imitated art in the Ukraine early in 2015. In disputed regions of the vast steppe, unidentified third parties are said to have attempted to fracture the fragile truce by exploiting the lack of trust between two armed forces during a POT. In some cases, they succeeded and Russian and Ukrainian forces ended up trading fire.

If and when the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is spring-loaded for action during a POT, we must be aware of the peril from third parties who may aim to move us from a readiness state of 5 to 1.

The precursors for action are not hard to fathom.

With the right uniforms and war machines but wrong allegiances, it is entirely conceivable that false flag operations could implicate military units on either side of the border for initiating a casus belli.

This is why allegations of civil servants and even armed forces personnel from nearby countries being part of a non-state actor have raised eyebrows here. Defence observers who think through the downstream implications of official authority abused would realise the potentially catastrophic results to both sides.

So we know the peril. What then are possible solutions?

As in the Sum of All Fears, it is the ability to sense-make dangerous situations that wins the day.

Massive firepower, however inspiring the light and sound show appears to the camera, counts for nought until and unless the destructive potential of war machines can be applied in the right place, right time and on worthy targets.

It is therefore vital for the SAF to build its battlespace awareness to a level of prescience above and beyond what the threat(s) may use against us.

In theory at least, forewarned is forearmed.

From Changi Point to Tuas, the 42km distance across this island can be easily traversed by an extended range full-bore base bleed round fired by a heavy artillery piece. Rocket artillery some 100km away and shipborne cruise missiles from even further can reach out and touch us within minutes. This is how small and vulnerable we are.

Should the worst happen and we find our tiny island in the beaten zone of incoming ordnance, then one must have the confidence that active defences will provide the proverbial iron dome above our heads.

Passive defences count too. Such specialised infrastructure - hardened above ground or dug deep underground - will provide some measure of resilience as we soak up the initial onslaught.

And then strike back? Perhaps. But maybe not if our appreciation of the situation points to a nefarious and deliberate bid to force the SAF into action.

Being prepared to act involves more than being mission-ready.

In some scenarios, it will demand that we know when to stand down and when to keep our powder dry.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

China-US tift over the South China Sea will demand deft diplomacy from Singapore

There will be no winner if China and the United States clash in the South China Sea, only losers, victims and targets among regional countries.
Which label Singapore is accorded will depend heavily on deft diplomacy, personal ties and goodwill banked over the years by Singaporean leaders and statesmen in both Asia-Pacific powers.

If you challenge yourself to ponder the improbable, how severe would the worst-case scenario look on your list of improbable outcomes? And how would Singapore fare if the improbable really does hit us?
Jaw jaw or war war, one thing is clear: Close ties nurtured between Singapore, China and the United States will be stress-tested and Singapore cannot be a bystander even if we wish to sit out the storm.
This is because the Republic would appear on any analysis of places and bases in the South China Sea region. The Chinese military would no doubt be fully aware of Singapore’s role in sustaining the US military posture in the region. As for the US military, we are more than a port of call. This means Singapore will feature in studies conducted by military strategists from both China and the US.

Strategic lily pad 
American air and naval logistics units in Singapore provide supplies such as food, fuel and ammunition to the US military that extend their staying power when operating in regional air and sea lanes. The US logistics units located in Singapore include Commander Task Force 73 (CTF 73), which operates from Sembawang Wharves, and Air Mobility Squadron Detachment 2, which is housed at Paya Lebar Air Base.
Every year, CTF 73 is said to move more than 8,700 tons of ammunition for US Navy warships in the region. The US Air Force's Detachment 2 unit at PLAB allows US warplanes to use Singapore as a strategically-located lily pad to refuel, resupply and as a crew rest stop for American air power as it stretches its wings across the Asia-Pacific.
Since 1992, the arrangement for Singapore to host US military logistics units has sustained the American presence in the region, which has had a stabilising effect for the region. Since the arrangement took effect, Singapore has served as the swing around point for US Pacific forces headed to various wars in the Middle East and Horn of Africa. The Lion City also served a pivotal role in various humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, providing succour to US ships and planes carrying relief to South Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

If one ponders the improbable should China-US relations heat up, what sort of turbulence would this arrangement face?
Weathering the storm
China is unlikely to sit quietly if such support to US forces is continued, or worse, ratcheted up in scale to underpin US military operations in the region.
On the other hand, the special relationship between Singapore and the US will come under strain if the Republic is no longer a lily pad for American military forces.
Any meddling with the peacetime status quo by Singapore is likely to provoke a response from either side. Indeed, former US President George W. Bush's firm stand on the global war of terror, immortalised in the phrase "you are either with us or against us" is likely to swing into play when Singapore is forced to show its hand.
There is no model answer, no easy precedent to lean on should Singapore's position in a China-US clash put us to the test. Indeed, the web of relationships in the diplomatic and military spheres is complex.
We need to count on astute interventions by our diplomats and leaders – many of which take place away from the public eye - should the improbable happen and we suddenly find ourselves under close and intense scrutiny by both powers.